Summer Adventure part 2: Mongolia

Mongolia was surprising, a mix of big city and vast plains, hard living and great vegetarian restaurants. The people are friendly and generous, happy to welcome you into their homes and to share their food, despite the language barrier.

The only city in Mongolia, Ulaan-Baatar has around half of the country’s three million-strong population in its grasp. The city is busy, with numerous cars and trucks adding to the dusty roads. Many people move here from the countryside, hoping to earn more money, hoping to develop a different lifestyle. Less and less young adults are willing to take over their family’s nomadic traditions and livelihood. Perhaps one day the only place you will see a ger (the traditional circular fabric and wood tents that Mongolian nomadic families live in; often known by their Russian name ‘yurt’) is in a museum. In the city, strange letters decorated shop signs interspersed with occasional English words: Edinburgh Scottish Pub; Sod Classic Shop; Singer on a huge mural of a sewing machine. After less than a day, myself and the two friends I was travelling with (Emily and Louise) set off to experience life in a ger for ourselves.

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Only an hour or so after leaving the city, the landscape was dramatically different. Vast swathes of myriad hues of green covered the land; plains of grasses mingled with flocks of trees; occasional cows or villages added other shades of colour. Mountains emerged from the ground, adding their magnificence to the natural splendour surrounding us.

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The nomadic family we stayed with consisted of an older married couple, a young woman who was a cousin of some sort, a young boy about three years old and a pet sheep. We were told that the couple’s children were grown up and married and lived in the city. The small boy was their grandson who had come to stay with them for the summer; the dozen or so other children who we saw around and playing had also been sent to the encampment to stay with nomadic family members for the summer. This gave both the parents and children a bit of a holiday whilst the grandparents could spend precious time with them and teach them some traditional processes.

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One of these was milking the cows, which we all had a go at! This was done morning and evening every day, regardless of the weather (it rained the evening we were there so they milked the cows a little later than usual, once the rain stopped). I think I did an okay job of milking, although it wasn’t easy and I only did it for a few minutes. By this point it was quite chilly outside with a bitterly cold wind; I was very glad I’d bought a fleece in Ulaan-Baatar the day before as I’d forgotten to bring any kind of jacket or jumper on my travels!

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The family’s primary income was from dairy farming and produce, so we also got to see (and taste) a couple of other products: sour curd which is dried in the sun on the roof of their outdoor seating shelter next to a dead bird so that the live ones wouldn’t eat it, and a butter-type spread. To us it was very strange because almost everything tasted or smelled a little like sour milk, and some things (like the tea) were much more salty than we were expecting. In Mongolia it is traditional to add salt to tea and milk; our guide and translator told us that she preferred tea that way as that’s what she’s used to. I personally didn’t really like it, but that’s not to say I couldn’t become accustomed to it if I had to. (Although I hope I never have to! I’m very typical English when it comes to tea drinking.)

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Facilities were very basic. They had some electricity from solar panels on the roof, enough to power lights in the evening and a tiny television and satellite dish. The toilet was the other side of the cow field and was a shed with a long-drop. People washed themselves and their clothes at the nearby river. This was their summer location. In the autumn they would pack everything up and take themselves, their belongings, their gers and their cows to their winter location a few kilometres away. I have so much respect for these people; they have such hard lives and we just had a tiny taster of it.

Back in Ulaan-Baatar the next day we went on a city tour of the key historic and important areas, including the National Museum. One of the most impressive was a huge monument to Chinggis Khan (or as we know him, Gengis Khan) overlooking the central square. Bordering on another side was the National Theatre where we saw a traditional show including an orchestra made up of all traditional Mongolian instruments, a contortionist, dancers, fantastic costumes and – the best part – Mongolian throat singers. It was amazing! I would definitely recommend seeing it if you ever go there.

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Mongolia was a really interesting contrast to Beijing. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and I found out lots of fascinating things about Mongolia, its history and its people. Four days was at the same time too long and too short – too long for staying in the city, too short for exploring the stunning National Parks and meeting the people who live in them. My recommendation would be spend one day in the city and much longer (if you have time) exploring, although make sure you check that the standards of where you’re staying match your preference, as they can range from the very basic (which we had) to complete luxury (along the lines of ‘glamping’).

Our next train took us about 38 hours to reach our destination, and as it was very similar to the first one I’m not going to write a separate blog post about it! You can read about it here if you’d like to.

Next stop: Irkutsk, Russia.

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Summer Adventure part 1: Beijing

My epic summer adventure – travelling from China to the UK by train across Asia and Europe – began with two days in Beijing.

Myself and my friend Emily arrived quite late on Sunday night and were met at the airport by the guide arranged through RealRussia, with whom we had booked the first part of our adventure – Beijing to Moscow via Ulaan-Baatar, Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg. Emily decided that she wanted to see the flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square at dawn, which meant she had to leave at 4am to get there in time. I decided to stay in bed! And when she returned a few hours later I was quite glad I had as her description of the event was “underwhelming”. Her advice – don’t bother getting up for it. Most of the square is cordoned off, which means you end up standing a fair distance away behind the huge crowds of people that have also made the trip, the soldiers are in their standard uniform and the music is canned.

After Emily’s return around 6am we both went back to sleep for a while before starting our day properly about 9.30am. We found out we were too late for the hotel breakfast, which finished at 9am, so we found a little noodle bar down the road for brunch instead.

Having replenished ourselves we set off for the Summer Palace. Emily had intended to visit the Forbidden City after watching the flag raising ceremony, however, contrary to the information on the website, it is closed every Monday.

We had a lovely day at the Summer Palace, which is huge. Even though I’d been there before, because we entered through a different gate I saw a great deal of the grounds, lakes and buildings I hadn’t seen before. We took a boat ride across the lake from the market street to the bridge with seventeen arches, which wasn’t particularly cheap but was a really nice a relaxing way to get around and see the palace and its grounds.

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With a pit-stop for coffee (Emily) and ice cream (both of us) halfway through our visit, we finally left at around 4pm (once we’d figured out how to get out! You’d think there would be signs…) to head back towards the hutong we were staying in. We were due to meet a friend of Emily’s but as he was late we had a wander around the hutongs and along the main street of the area. Lined with shops, stalls, cafes and various other food and souvenir products, it was a lively bustle of music, smells, people and fascinating things to see; everything from the shop selling handmade porcelain ocarinas shaped like different animals, to ice creams shaped like roses, delicate fans of every colour and design you could imagine, to someone dressed as a hot dog to attract people to the American-style diner.

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MaoMaoChong was our next port of call – a great little cocktail bar in the hutong with an excellent range of cocktails, an owner who speaks English and is happy to cater to your tastes, and delicious pizzas. It was there we met Emily’s friend Z and his girlfriend J and tried some of the tasty cocktails for ourselves. This was followed by dinner at a local place that served a whole leg of lamb over a hot grill in the middle of the table, accompanied by homemade bread and various side dishes such as black fungi, radishes with black bean sauce and a white, thinly sliced vegetable with some kind of gloopy sauce. The lamb was absolutely delicious; so much so that we ordered a second!

We ended the evening having a couple of drinks at a different local bar that has several homebrews as well as a Shenzhen special (which I found quite surprising!). Luckily for me, the owner told me I could order a non-beer drink via him from the restaurant next door and they would even bring it through for me. It was a great end to the first day of our trip.

The following day Emily had booked a hike along a lesser known part of the Great Wall with an organisation called Great Wall Fresh. It’s a family runs business that grows all their own produce and escorts visitors on hikes of various routes and challenges, whilst also providing them with a healthy home grown meal before and after their journey. I had already decided that wasn’t for me, so after having breakfast together and wishing Emily well, I went back to bed for a bit. I was still on sleep catch-up after a really long semester.

In the afternoon I went for a wander around the huntongs by our hotel. It was lovely just wandering around the little back streets, passing odd shops here and there and admiring the traditional architecture wherever I came across it. After a while I came to the back of the nearby temple the hotel staff had told me about before I set off. I followed the wall around to the entrance and discovered it was a huge and well-known temple called Yonghe Temple. I spent well over an hour exploring the grounds which were pervaded by the scent of incense. Looking at the different styles of architecture that had been used for the different temples within the complex during different periods of time or because of variations in the local religion gave an interesting insight into the history of the place. You’re not allowed to take photos inside any of the buildings as they are all still used as active places of worship and prayer; this gives each temple a sense of peace and dignity that all visitors respect, regardless of their own beliefs.

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After a bite to eat for dinner at a random place I found in the same area we’d been the night before, I headed back to the hotel to meet Emily after her Great Wall adventure. We decided that we’d enjoyed the cocktails so much the night before we had to go back and try some different ones. We were not disappointed. We also tried the pumpkin, pine nut, rocket and feta pizza, which was delicious and the perfect accompaniment to the cocktails.

We ended the evening with a walk through the huntongs and along the canals to a lake, all beautifully lit among the trees, and had a final drink at the East Shore Jazz Café overlooking the lake. Unfortunately there was no live music and so we were the only people in there, but it was nice and relaxing.

When we got back to our hotel, our other friend Louise had arrived (she was supposed to be on the same flight with us to Beijing but had been delayed), so we said hi to her before going to bed.

The following day began our Trans-Mongolian Railway journey with 28 hours on a train from Beijing to Ulaan-Baator, Mongolia.